American tourist facing possible 12-year prison sentence after ammo found in luggage in Turks and Caicos

American tourist faces prison in Turks and Caicos over ammo found in luggage

Valerie Watson returned to Oklahoma City's Will Rogers World Airport in tears on Tuesday morning in a drastic departure from how she imagined her long weekend trip to Turks and Caicos would end.

Watson is home, but her husband, Ryan Watson, was jailed on the island and is facing a potential mandatory minimum sentence of 12 years behind bars after airport security allegedly found four rounds of hunting ammo in his carry-on bag earlier this month. 

"We were trying to pack board shorts and flip flops," Valerie Watson told CBS News. "Packing ammunition was not at all our intent."

Valerie Watson, who learned Sunday she would not be charged and would be allowed to return home, said the trip "went from what was supposed to be a dream vacation to a nightmare."

Ryan Watson was released on bail after two nights, but must remain on the island and check in with police twice a week.

The Watsons are not the only ones going through this ordeal.

Bryan Hagerich is awaiting trial after ammo was found in the Pennsylvania man's checked bag in February.

"I subsequently spent eight nights in their local jail. Some of the darkest, hardest times of my life, quite frankly," Hagerich said. "These last 70 days have been kind of a roller coaster, just the pain and suffering of having your family at home and I'm here."

Possessing a gun or ammunition is prohibited in Turks and Caicos, but tourists were previously often able to just pay a fine. In February, however, a court order mandated that even tourists in the process of leaving the country are subject to prison time.

Since November 2022, eight firearms and ammunition prosecutions in total have been brought involving tourists from the United States, three of which are currently before the court with each of the defendants on bail.

Last year, a judge found Michael Grim from Indiana had "exceptional circumstances" when he pleaded guilty to accidentally having ammunition in his checked bag. He served almost six months in prison. 

"No clean running water. You're kind of exposed to the environment 24/7," he told CBS News. "Mosquitoes and tropical illnesses are a real concern. There's some hostile actors in the prison."

The judge was hoping to send a message to other Americans. 

"[His] sentencing was completely predicated on the fact that I was an American," Grim said. 

The U.S. embassy last September posted a travel alert online, warning people to "check your luggage for stray ammunition," noting it would "not be able to secure your release from custody."

In a statement, a State Department spokesperson told CBS News, "We are aware of the arrest of U.S. citizens in Turks and Caicos.  When a U.S. citizen is arrested overseas, we stand ready to provide all appropriate consular assistance. In a foreign country, U.S. citizens are subject to that country's laws, even if they differ from those in the United States." 

Last year, TSA found a record 6,737 guns at airport security checkpoints, and most of them were loaded.  

"I can't even begin to think that this very innocent, regrettable mistake would prevent me from being able to watch my son graduate or teach him to shave or take my daughter to dances," Ryan Watson said. "It's just unfathomable. I do not — I can't process it."

The Turks and Caicos government responded to CBS News in a lengthy statement confirming the law and reiterating that, even if extenuating circumstances are found to be present, the judge is required to mandate prison time.   


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